SARASOTA, Fla. -- A Christian Science couple was found guilty Tuesday of third-degree murder and felony child abuse in the death of their 7-year-old daughter by diabetes.
William Hermanson, 42, and his 38-year-old wife Christine were convicted in the death of their daughter Amy, who died at home in 1986 of diabetes after they relied on prayer for her recovery instead of seeking medical attention.
The jury of three women and three men deliberated for about three hours before finding the couple guilty. The two could be sentenced to as much as 20 years in prison.
The Hermansons used as their defense a 1975 Florida law that gives protection to parents who withhold medical treatment from their sick children if they are 'legitimately practicing their religious beliefs.'
Sarasota Circuit Judge Stephen Dakan refused a defense motion to have the charges dismissed without sending the case to the jury, but he affirmed the so-called 'religious exemption' in the 1975 law is a valid defense.
Prosecutors were blocked from presenting testimony that both parents had themselves received medical treatment in the past.
But assistant state attorney Deno Economou told jurors in closing arguments the Christian Science religion allows medical intervention in cases where prayer has not worked, citing testimony from a Christian Science nurse that an ambulance was called for Amy.
Economou told jurors the question concerns the rights of Amy, not the rights of her parents and that they should have known how sick she was. He said it was not an illness that appeared a couple of days before she died, but one that came up weeks before she died.
Defense attorney Edward Booth told jurors the evidence showed the parents 'were caring for their child the best way they knew how within their religious beliefs.'
He said the Hermansons thought Amy was suffering from some type of emotional problem and didn't realize for a long time that she was physically ill.
He asked the jurors not to decide on the morality of the issue, but to look instead at the state law which protects a person's right to legitimately practice their religious beliefs.